Revisiting the Manhattan Project and the production of the first atomic bomb—and the man who assembled and directed its cast of thousands.
Once again, the author mines the experiences of her grandfather, 20-year Harvard president James Conant, who also served as chairman of the National Defense Research Committee during WWII. Unlike her previous bestselling venture (Tuxedo Park, 2002), which revealed the obscure but fascinating Alfred Lee Loomis, Conant deals here with a subject and personality on which volumes have already been produced. However, by concentrating on the human aspects of the group—including some of the most brilliant and talented scientists of the era J. Robert Oppenheimer was able to cajole into spending over two years of their lives on a remote mesa near Los Alamos—the author is able to generate a spellbinding account of a venture that often teetered on the brink while the future of the world lay at stake. Oppenheimer is likewise shown as perhaps the one individual who could have pulled it off. Manhattan may never even have gotten off the ground, for example, had he not been able to talk crusty General Leslie Groves, the Project’s military overseer, out of swearing in every scientist as a commissioned Army officer and making them wear fatigue uniforms “while on duty.” He was an intense, engagingly intellectual motivator, but he was not, the author often points out, a paragon, easily capable of approaching hysterics in impending crises and unfairly deflecting blame on subordinates. Oppenheimer did, however, shoulder full responsibility from start to finish, which left him with the feeling, as he later told President Truman, of having “blood on my hands.” A high point here is the intensely graphic recollection by participants, including James Conant, of the Trinity event, the initial bomb test, where uncertainty was overwhelming.
Vividly told, the interplay of personalities that would ultimately transform the world.